Tag Archives: Nature


Outdoor Living: The Urban Treehouse

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Outdoor Living: The Urban Treehouse

The journey from debris to an idyllic sylvan retreat in the city

By Rachel Sa & Bruce Kirkland
Photography By Gillian Jackson

Despite some tumultuous times, our recent wholehouse renovation gave us our dream home in Toronto’s Upper Beaches. Our backyard, however, remained a nightmare. Overrun with tons of construction debris, it looked like a war zone.


Yet we longed for an outdoor oasis that we could love as much as the interior of our renovated home. We yearned to dine al fresco, entertain beneath the stars, and sip a glass of wine in the warmth of summer. But it all seemed impossible. We did not know where to begin.

Enter Vince MacDonald. Vince is the owner of Natural Effects, a boutique landscape design-build company in Toronto. Vince and his small team of professionals are exactly the kind of imaginative and meticulous people that everyone needs when an outdoor project is too big to tackle yourself.


“Before I even knock on the door, I quickly size the property up,” Vince says of his first-impression approach. “Then we start talking: You need to find out what the people who own the property want to do. It’s a lifestyle thing. Some people want sun. Some want shade. Some want to be active. Some want to relax. Then there are dogs and kids and BBQs and even the desire to look at birds in the backyard. Everything needs to be carefully considered.”


Vince admits that his first look at our disastrous backyard left him feeling daunted. Our original house contractor, before abruptly leaving the site, used the backyard as a dumping ground for broken bricks, concrete chunks, junk lumber, twisted metal and the remains of on-the-job meals.

“When I first saw it,” Vince recalls, “it was really difficult to even see the ground. But, of course, I could see enough to realize the property is on a pretty good slope and that there was a need for significant retaining walls, once things got cleared out.”


That was stage one. Wanting exercise, we handled the cleanup ourselves, loading an enormous bin to its brim. When Vince returned, the site was still rough but the ground was exposed— and he got excited.


“One of the things that I love about Toronto is the whole ravine system. It is part of what ‘makes’ Toronto, and this place sits on one of those gorges.” Being on the ancient shore of what was Lake Iroquois after the recession of the last ice age, our property is sandy, sloped and treed. “So that was appealing to me,” Vince says.

We are, in Vince’s words, “lucky” to have this location. Our house backs onto a public park. It is not a flat square or rectangle. But Vince—as he tells us about his other projects— is dedicated to making the most of any situation, with or without a lucky placement. Ours just provided more challenges and exciting possibilities.


Once our backyard landscape was open, Vince’s creative juices flowed. After learning that we are both avid bird watchers, keen gardeners, and all-round nature lovers, he suggested a four-seasons outdoor space that would echo the inside living space. To accommodate our sloped lot, he designed an integrated set of tiered decks, railings, fences, wood-retaining walls, and dry-stone walls. He added a secluded area of pea gravel and ensured there were trees and shrubs to anchor the greenery we would plant later. Lumber was sourced locally and quickly, from the family-run and super-friendly Danforth Lumber.

Our backyard now has its own “kitchen” (for the BBQ), a “dining room” (with fold-up table and chairs), a small “reading retreat” next to the park gate, and a “living room” on the pea gravel surrounding an outdoor fireplace. Vince installed chair-sized boulders for seating there among the row of cedars and yews.


Unique twists give it all an even deeper character. The south fence hugs the leaning trunk of a neighbour’s tree, with space for further growth while still providing privacy. The railings on the decks and west fence are done in different widths and runs, almost like the rhythmic wavelengths of a jazz composition. The space is private, yet allows us an open gaze into the park, as if the yard extends far beyond its boundaries.


Now we can sit with family and friends in a relaxing setting; we can garden in the “hidden” nooks, some of which we built ourselves to complement what Natural Effects provided; and, yes, we can commune with nature and watch the birds.


For the gardening component, the design includes a half dozen minigardens, several of them the result of additional stone-wall building we did ourselves. Vince’s design left space for us to be creative, too.

While our backyard may not be Algonquin Park inside the city, the space suggests our own nature refuge in the heart of Toronto’s east end. “When I first stood here, on the upper back deck, I looked out at what this might become,” Vince says with a smile as he surveys the finished yard. “I imagined an urban treehouse. That is what it feels like today.”


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Destination Ontario: Hamilton & Burlington

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Destination Ontario: Hamilton & Burlington

By Cece Scott www.cecescott.com

Golden Horseshoe Port Cities


Founded in 1816, Hamilton has experienced an epoch-making revitalization over the past few years. The city is becoming known for its vibrant arts community, tasty culinary destinations and still affordable housing. An equidistant hour’s drive from Toronto or Niagara Falls, Hamilton is Canada’s ninth largest municipality, and Ontario’s third. With leafy streets and epic architecture, Hamilton offers quirky neighbourhoods and historical charm.


James Street North is at the centre of Hamilton’s developing arts’ scene, along with King William Street, Locke Street and King Street. James Street North has a wide selection of new eateries to choose from, including Jack & Lois, which was mentioned on You Gotta Eat Here, E-Talk and in The Huffington Post, plus Charred, Mesa and the health-conscious Green Bar. Funky boutiques offer everything from party ware to jewellery and fashions from local designers. Nearby Ottawa Street captures Hamilton’s eclectic spirit with dozens and dozens of storefronts that include D.Y.I. shops, fabrics, antiques, collectibles and restaurants.

James Street art crawl

For great shopping and dining, visit Gore Park in the city’s downtown core. Take some time out on a park bench to smell the roses while admiring the stately statues of Queen Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton has been an epicentre for the arts for more than 100 years, and is Ontario’s third largest public gallery. The McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) was founded in 1967 at McMaster University, and houses more than 7,000 pieces of art.

Hamilton’s live theatre scene offers diverse performances at Theatre Aquarius, and at smaller companies like the Players’ Guild of Hamilton and Hamilton Theatre Inc.


Hamilton’s historical attractions include the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, the HMCS Haida National Historic Site (Canada’s most famous Tribal Class warship) and Dundurn – a National Historic Site built in 1835. Now a museum, the castle was the former residence of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, Prime Minister of Upper Canada, 1854 to 1856. The current Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, is the museum’s patron, and is the great, great, great granddaughter of MacNab.

Other noted attractions include the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, (Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons is a member), the African Lion Safari Park and the Cathedral of Christ the King.

Canadian War Plane Museum


Residents and visitors can cycle along Hamilton’s 7.5 kilometres of waterfront trails through the 40-acre Bayfront Park, which includes an outdoor skating rink and soon-tobe- refurbished public marina, and connects to the Royal Botanical Gardens. The Hamilton Escarpment offers spectacular views of the city and of the Hamilton Harbour.

Webster’s Falls

Hamilton, and the surrounding area, boasts more than 100 waterfalls. Webster’s Falls is located in the Spencer George/Webster’s Falls Conservation Area, and is considered Hamilton’s gem. Enjoy a self-guided walk along the well-maintained trails that provide access to a host of waterfalls along the Niagara Escarpment and Bruce Trail. Trekkers can also hike the King’s Forest Waterfall Walk to Albion Falls, the Devil’s Punchbowl Battlefield Creek Walk and the scenic Iroquoia Walk, among others. Picturesque cycling routes include the Escarpment Rail Trail, Dofasco Trail Loop, the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail and the Chedoke Rail Trail.


The picturesque town of Dundas is located close by, and features 19th century buildings, sophisticated boutiques and food emporiums. Nicknamed the Valley Town because of its location at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment on the western edge of Lake Ontario, Dundas is a short 20-minute drive from Hamilton.


At the centre of the Golden Horseshoe is Burlington. This city is ideally situated between Toronto and Niagara, and offers the best of all worlds. It’s home to 115 parks and 200 annual events. For five years in a row, Burlington was named the best mid-sized city in Canada, as well as Ontario’s second best city to live in by MoneySense, 2017.

Rock Climbing at Rattlesnake


Seasonal changes in Burlington are celebrated with flair. In the early spring, Maple Festivals are popular at the Bronte Creek Provincial Park and Conservation Halton. Tulips and lilacs are the first to bloom at the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the return of the cherry blossoms are always a highlight at Spencer Smith Park.

Come summer, there are a plethora of ways to stay active, including hiking on the many trails, cycling along the waterfront, or casting a line and picnicking at one of the many parks in the area. Farmers’ markets are plentiful as are open-air patios for dining al fresco. In June, the Sound of Music Festival kicks off and continues throughout the summer months. Canada’s Largest Ribfest is held on Labour Day weekend at Spencer Smith Park, and is a great way to close out the summer.

Fall into Nature celebrates the changing colours along the escarpment and throughout the region. Autumn festivals include the Pumpkins to Pastries Trail and the Harvest Festival.

Winter activities in Burlington include outdoor skating, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and hiking. Closer to the holidays, long-standing events like Holiday Traditions at the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Candlelit Stroll and the Festival of Lights in downtown Burlington are delightful destinations.


A National Historic Site of Canada, The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a four-season experience. The RBG boasts the world’s largest lilac collection, and includes 2,700 acres of gardens, nature sanctuaries, on-site restaurants, a gift shop and yearly festivals.


Each year, The Burlington Performing Arts Centre includes an impressive lineup of music, theatre, dance and comedy. The Art Gallery of Burlington hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year, including the Soup Bowl and Arts Burlington Christmas Show & Sale. There are many small galleries and studios to explore, and the Art in Action Studio Tour is scheduled for the weekend of November 4th and 5th. To learn more about early life in Burlington, the Ireland House Museum offers a guided tour. Doors Open Burlington is on September 30, 2017.

Owl at Raptor Centre

Photography : Tourism and Culture, City of Hamilton; Webster’s Falls, bigstockphoto.com, Tourism Burlington; (rock climbing and Raptor Centre) Conservation Halton


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